Author of Breasts Don't Lie

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Teething: Fractured Grief

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I restarted grinding my teeth at night. Like I did after Rod died. For years until my dentist started talking to me about a bite guard. A bite guard! I had visions of pimples and acne cream and headgear out of an 80s John Hughes movie.

But it wasn’t until years later that I took the dentist’s advice seriously and hustled down to the neighborhood CVS for a two-pack of bite guards figuring I would ‘boil and bite’ myself into a decent fit by the second try. The cat used the mangled first attempt as a toy, tossing it into the air and catching it in her mouth. I was impressed. Some serious chompers on that kitty – hers are in better shape than mine.

Eventually, maybe ten years after my husband’s death, I stopped wearing the bite guard, probably in the search for a decent night’s sleep. My teeth had stopped grinding by that point; my heartache had lessened.

So, now I’m thinking- will I need another twofer as I grieve Dad’s death? Should I hedge my bets and use my 30% off coupon or wait? Wait like we did sitting two weeks in ICU tearing out our hearts. We sat, siblings, wife, and friends, listening to the constant noise of the unit whittle away more and more of my father.

That unit was never quiet. I don’t begrudge the nurses their laughs or gossip. It’s the mechanical noises that got to us. The continual and rhythmic whines and whirl loved ones learn to block out, but the unexpected beep sends our hearts racing with adrenaline and sets my teeth to grinding. The nursing unit jumps into action and visitors shuffle to the walls plastering their ashen bodies against the hospital green paint.

Every night during that two weeks, I changed out of my clothes as fast as I could. Who expects to spend two weeks in a hospital chair with the frigid air circulating the stench of decomposing bodies? We began to look like the sheets, wrinkled and threadbare with use. After eating a nutritious dinner – we were keeping up our strength – we would retire to our corners of the house.

I sat by the computer watching Netflix movies, any movie with a killer shark. You don’t get many killer sharks in ICU, so I thought they would be safe to watch. I was aware of teetering on the edge, dancing between the extremes of closing everything up so tightly that it would take an act of God to open me up again and on the other end, the great beast of grief breathing down my neck, teeth ready to drag me under. Maybe Jaws wasn’t such a great idea. If I tiptoed up to the abyss, I saw a long drop down into sadness and pain as deep as the pain I had known before – an abyss where the tiniest act of kindness would send me into a despair for days, knock me down and leave me winded to the point that I wondered if I wanted to go on living, waking every morning with my jaws aching and the taste of old teacups in my mouth. Maybe the shark movies were a brilliant leap of my subconscious.

I searched my Netflix queue; I watched six shark movies and even got my sister hooked on them when she joined us in our vigil. The night before she left, we gave it a rest and watched a comedy, but only after watching an hour of The Omen, a 70s movie, predicting the end of days. Maybe My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 was not the most tactful of choices, but I figured we needed something not too taxing. We laughed. I thought my stepbrother might fall out of his seat at one point. Even so, my teeth ached the next morning.

Back home, trying to establish a world without my Dad, I still feel the need to watch my “big bug” movies. I know Andrew wonders what the fuck I’m doing, but I don’t want reality right now. I want fantasy where my father wakes up demanding decent coffee with whipping cream and brown sugar, Lichen tries to serve us tripe, and I don’t stick a clear chunk of plastic in my mouth every night to avoid fracturing my teeth.

(I drew the shark. Don’t copy without asking me.)

 

Coursera: The Coffee Clutch

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I signed up for a course on Plot in Fiction through Coursera and can’t figure out how to post my assignments. Running up against many web walls, I decided to post them on my website.

Remember, this is fiction, made-up, not true.

My nasty little trolls (Jennifer G., Richard A., and Susie S.) can make all the comments they like but I will block you.

Here goes: The Coffee Clutch: Rising Action using 12 unrelated words.

All she wanted was a cup of hot coffee, French press, with whole milk and two teaspoons of sugar, sometimes within the first hour of awakening. She padded into the kitchen on bare feet, pushing aside the debris of unpacking, and the assorted filth of teenagers, swearing. Patience wasn’t her strong point, and her hand-eye coordination refused to engage without that first cup. She reached for the water heating appliance, not a teapot or even a pan but something her partner bought her as a consolation prize for dealing with his cranky daughters and plugging it in, knocked over the canister of beans.

”Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said crouching down to sweep up the beans.

Managing to get the beans into the grinder and then into the press, Sara sighed when a large black bird, a crow or a jackdaw, flew into the window above the sink. Shards of glass and metal lay around her feet from the fallen press. Holding her breath, she looked for a safe place to step feeling more and more like a hungry tiger prowling its cage while outside, freedom taunted.

“What’s going on?” said a muffled voice from their bedroom.

“Nothing,” Sara said, pretend-sweet, reaching across to turn off the water; she flinched when its steam scorched her arm, and a boiling stream exploded onto the remnants of glass, metal, and coffee grinds. Red splotches colored her neck and face as panting she cleaned up the mess.

A memory of their first six months together filled Sara’s mind emphasizing the difference between the two realities. She looked at the tell-tale towel thinking that she was responsible for the messes in her life from the coffee to her relationship. Then her defenses settled back into place; this is the universe’s trick to get me to be nicer and go caffeine-free – not happening.

“Sounds like you need help in there,” her boyfriend said from far away. Nearby teenage grumblings set her nerves on the edge of crazy.

“Naw,” Sara said grabbing her coat and keys. “All aboard the USS Misery.”

******************

You are my peer evaluators. So, what do you think?

Sheep, Stepfamilies, and The Brady Bunch

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Last night, I was flipping through the channels and saw an advert for the TV series, The Brady Bunch. The last time that I thought about the show was when a group of therapists was kvetching about stepfamilies. Someone brought up The Brady Bunch, and every one of us groaned, which soon became a throw-darts-at, annihilate-the-series free-for-all. Therapists loathe this show. We loathe The Brady Bunch for multiple reasons, professional and personal.

One, Carol Brady was a nincompoop – without a job, but she still needed a housekeeper, slightly exasperated but still way too calm, and was addicted to caffeine, probably to keep her awake. Not a role model nor representative of a mother in any stepfamily we knew of or were a part of.

Two, apart from Jan the whiny one, the show’s characters are flat, stock stereotypes. Goodie-goodies who could share bedrooms and bathrooms. Try that with your teenagers. Take out extra insurance!

Three, where are the zits? This was a show populated with teenagers, and there was not a zit in sight. Or feminine hygiene products. Or stinky tube socks. Or birth control pills or condoms. Not even a dish or glass left on the counter.

(I am kind of glad for their neglect of diversity, in any form – who knows how they would have mishandled it.)

The big reason to loathe The Brady Bunch  – the show sets up unrealistic expectations around the coming together of two families. Stepfamilies are difficult, horribly painful and awkward, from deciding where to live, who gets a particular bedroom and especially, bathroom, to the weird hormone stew stirred by the proximity of unfamiliar relatives smashed up against each other, to finish with the delusion of two families having this sorted out in under five years.

Not my experience. When Dad moved out, I was fifteen and tired of the parental tension, so the idea of divorce was not a problem. Things were pretty good for a year. Mom was grumbly and lonely, but the three of us siblings kept going to school, no one got hooked on anything, and we established a pretty tight family bond.

Then Mom announced that she was dating. The kids looked at each other, grimaced, and went to our rooms. I had a good-sized bedroom as the oldest; it was my haven. During that first year, post-divorce, I got a separate telephone line. Yes, it was the late 70s. I remember phoning my friend to tell her about Mom’s announcement. She was silent. This was happening before divorce became common, almost a rite of passage, among teenagers.

We kids proceeded to make Mom’s life hell. We pestered her with problems, had emergencies during her dates, ignored him when she introduced us, and other usual adolescent brouhahas. We were annoying little shits.

Then one day I saw them. I was walking home from high school wondering where I had put my zit cream when I saw his car approaching. I ran behind a shrub. Not a big shrub and probably they would have noticed me if not for them being so involved in each other. My mother was laughing. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen her laughing. What followed was a weird epiphany; Mom deserved the opportunity to be happy. Did I need her to be alone, lonely, waiting for me to grow up before she moved on with her life? What right did I have to judge her? Something opened up for me on that day. I had a toehold on transformation.

I’d love to say that it was sunshine and rainbows from then on. No. My younger brother and sister were not happy with Mom’s choice to date. We never met his children. Adolescence with all of its pain continued, but I didn’t feel the need to create additional drama with Mom over her dating habits. At some point, they stopped dating and Mom must have decided to avoid the problem for the rest of the time her children lived at home.

Home on break during my senior year at college, I asked Mom why she never remarried. She said she didn’t want to subject us to the ordeal of bringing another man into the house. I nodded and went up to my then shoe-box-sized room feeling guilty for my part in her decision. Maybe Mom didn’t want to subject herself to the ordeal of her annoying little shits, her own kids …

Now, I wish for TV shows that help us navigate changing family structures, shows that hold up characters struggling for their needs, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but with at least a foot in reality. A TV show about the craziness of blending families with the squabbling and the unevenness of humanity and the possibility of transformation.

 

(Image by Rudy van der Veen at Skitterphoto.com – do you know how difficult it is to find a realistic pic of a family? For some reason, sheep felt right.)

An Imperfect Mother

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Most of my readers know about my ambivalent relationship with my mother. She was so many things – ill, sad, and abusive, but also independent, feisty, and in her very peculiar way – loving.

When the memories of her other characteristics threaten to make her unredeemable, I remember this story.

She could see things that other people couldn’t or refused to see. When I was struggling with my weight as a teenager who desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer, she took me to the perfect meal. Weird, huh? A meal.

I had spent my fifteenth summer at a dance camp, and I came home freaked out. A couple of months before going to the dance camp, I had gained the necessary ten pounds to jumpstart a late-onset puberty. Literally, before the weight gain, my body fat was too low to provide the necessary materials for a teenage body and brain. Pleased with my new curves, I went with another girl to our yearly dance intensive.

But throughout the camp, my dancing teachers had complained about my weight gain.

After the first few days, they would take me aside and say things.

“Your dancing weight is 98 to 103 pounds. Do you weigh that now?”

I let the ice cream drip down my hand, onto my toe shoes.

“105 is too much for your height.”

I was 5’6” tall.

“How much do you want to dance professionally? Really? That much. Well, you can’t be a dancer at that weight.”

In an audition, before my fellow dancers and competition, my teacher said, “If you lost some weight, you could make the company.”

When I fell out of a double pirouette, the ballet mistress said, “Maybe you could bind your chest. And your hips.”

I slept the whole way home from camp, too exhausted from writing down every little thing I ate, trying to find my balance (no one explained the needed rebuilding to suit my no longer androgynous body), while every second blocking out the faculty’s hurtful comments. Mom met me at the door, and I burst into tears. All week, I would catch her watching me.

On that next weekend, Mom said she was going to the mall and did I want to come? I must have muttered something because we ended up wandering around until we were standing in the doorway of the mall’s cafeteria. Over my objections, Mom pulled me in. She giggled. I had heard her laugh before, but giggling was new. She tucked my arm under hers. Like girlfriends.

“Let’s have dessert for dinner,” she said. “Pick two.”

She slid me a tray, smiled at me, and went off to pick her desserts. Lost before a line of forbidden desserts, I looked back at her. She was bright enough to keep her overt focus on her choices. Time to choose. Anorexia or dessert. I picked the chocolate cake and Jell-O. She didn’t say anything about my choices. Just paid. It was not a big moment but a decisive one.

I guard that memory. Mom could be so many things, lots of them ugly and painful but every once in a while, she was perfect.

Happy Mother’s Day. Share one precious memory, and we’ll guard them together.

(Image used with permission. By Andrew Giovinazzo.)

Yoga, Cows, and A Texan

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Saturday I had an urge, an almost unable-to-resist urge, to run someone down using a Ford Focus …

The car had a few dents, and I had a fleeting thought of “What the Hell.”

It’s been a trying week. We rolled into Frisco, a small Cowtown outside of Dallas, last Tuesday night at 10 pm. Stiff with sitting in a car since 5:30 am in some time zone, getting out for potty breaks and snacks, we stumbled into the apartment, trotting back to pick up the cat meowing in her purple plastic cage.

The next morning, the full force of the move hit me. I am in Texas. Without a job, a yoga home, a writing group, friends. Eeeoogh. Time to make the best of it.

So, I started out looking for yoga studios. This city is obsessed with hot yoga, my idea of a bad time. I come away from their heat mixing with my constitution creating cranky person prone to hissy fits. Then I expanded the search. I found a lovely studio just 25 minutes away in another city/burb/whatever. Entering the information on my phone’s Google Maps, it suggested a tollway. No way. Lots of very tall walls. How do you get on and off? Not happening, and I mapped another route. Getting there was not a problem. Lovely classes – I took two – leaving after 2 and ½ blissful hours in the studio.

Getting home from the studio was a problem – it took 90 minutes, a distraught phone call, and the above-mentioned urge. Without a doubt, I made a left when I should have turned right ending up in another city, full of walled communities, streets with no names or names I couldn’t find on my itsy-bitsy phone map, and limited places to make a turnaround. After cruising one street four times, I pulled into the BMW dealership, driving between two sets of cars to the man talking on his cell phone. He looked like a Texan. Smooth, hair slicked back, aviator sunglasses, and an incredulous look on his handsome-featured face. I rolled down my window. My face flushed with yoga and exasperation, but I smiled at him.

“Do you know you’re driving on a sidewalk?” he said.

“No. Anyway … “

“You are on a sidewalk.” He emphasized each word.

“I didn’t know that I was on a sidewalk. I need to find Preston Road,” I said trying to look friendly and feeling an urge to smack him silly.

“You have to get off the sidewalk.” He ran his hand through expensively coiffed hair.

“Other cars are on the sidewalk,” I said looking around. My hair was sticking to my face.

“You can’t get your car off this area without damaging the undercarriage,” he said waving his phone around.

“Look, there’s a dip in the,” and I paused for effect, “sidewalk. I’ll ease my car off the … sidewalk … if you’ll just tell me which way is Preston Road.” I turned my wheels towards him, inched forward a little bit to show him that I meant business. He backed up, made some vague hand gesture, and got in his car. Maybe he felt the need for some protection. Good call.

Completely confused by this time, I drove off without damaging the undercarriage of the car and with exemplary control having not hit him, his car, or the plate glass window of the dealership. I was protecting the remains of my yogic karma, minuscule as it was.

Against the odds, I found Preston Road and drove to the apartment. Flustered and cranky, I noticed the number of cows out grazing. They looked nonplussed. Peaceful even. One even mooed at me. Okay, I can do this, I thought. Opening both windows, I mooed along with the cow feeling … Texan. Not his kind of Texan, a kinder, gentler Texan-in-training who needs a road map.

 

 

Fear as the Dark Mother of Moving

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Yes, I am moving to Texas – the land of big hair and blue eyeshadow. I know, I know. But it’s my fear after spending ten of my formative years in Alabama feeling under made-up and under poufy-haired.

I keep thinking about fear, fear of moving, fear of my friends forgetting me, fear of loneliness from a general incompetence in making new friends, fear of the heat in Texas, fear that I am throwing out something important. The list goes on and on.

So, I went for a walk last night around Five Points late in the evening when the scraggly trees blend with the night sky. Total patches of the earth are black and vision-proof. I kept wandering the streets, shuffling my way along pavements occasionally stubbing a toe or tripping, bouncing off tree branches, feeling the spiders from said branches land in my hair, and working my way into a panic attack.

Like most Scots, when I’m worried, I walk and walk for a while, late at night, regulating my breath so the fear coalesces, snaking back into the dark edges to lay in waiting for the next time that it can grab me.

I can’t remember ever being freaked out about walking at night. I’ve walked this area for almost 20 years. I’ve survived the night of Dropping Spiders (one April evening I found three had dropped down crowning me with 24 legs – still makes me shiver). I have listened to the trains go past with the chug-a-lug sound, never changing in these two decades, and wondered about where I was going in life. I’ve sat on the swings in the park, surrounded by the toys of happily innocent kids and speculated if the wisdom gained is worth the innocence lost. In the dark, I have admitted my failures, where I’ve been mean or thoughtless, ignored then stared in the face my aging with the creeping vista of finitude, death. I’ve cursed and cried, laughed and said “I love you” where no one can hear me.

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I’ve met Kali, the dark mother, twice in one weekend walking these streets. During yoga teacher training, I walked my beagle-dachshund mix, PooPet, at 11:30 one Friday night. My doggie loved the darks holes, where the light had disappeared with the dipping sun and would scamper into places that looked fit for Moray Eels or Jack the Ripper. Nothing stopped her thirty pounds of courageous canine, but that night, we tromped along, meandering an uneven sidewalk when a silhouette stepped into the road. In a long robe, features obliterated, with a croak she whispered, “Don’t be afraid.” I remember opening my eyes wide, struggling to remain upright as PooPet jerked the chain to run behind my legs. When I gained my balance, the street was dark, leaves slithered in the breeze, and we were alone in the darkness. I didn’t think too much of it beyond, “Holy moly, we have weird ass people in this neighborhood.” But then the next night, walking the dog, another woman stepped into the light in the middle of the road. Even backlit I could tell that she was not the same woman. She lifted her arms toward the trees, and PooPet let out a bark that morphed into a whimper. The air stopped moving. I couldn’t breathe. Now I was seriously freaked out. PooPet was still, and for a moment, I could feel my blood move through my body, like I was being watered from the inside.

This Kali was formal, “There is no need to be frightened.” I think I said, “Uh, yeah, Okay.” At that point I was scared as fuck, running down that road to the safety of my townhouse. It didn’t stop me from returning to the training class the next day, but I was really, really, very alert between yoga poses.

Maybe that’s the way this is supposed to be. I am aware, actually frightened, that things could go wrong in a big way. But. I’m still going to move to Texas. My friends, come along for the ride but hold on. This will shake us up! Anyone up for a walk?

Om Kali Ma

 

Words for Int’l Women’s Day

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I didn’t know what the term meant – I don’t say things like that.

As most of my friends and colleagues and a few attorneys know, I have been stalked, my car and home vandalized, and my professional reputation threatened for a year by a mentally unhinged person. During that time, I walked a tightrope between creating more distress for the person’s family on one side and ignoring my safety on the other side. With this current act of name-calling, I am done being quiet.

There is something horrific about a woman commenting on another woman’s appearance in a way to shame her or cause her pain.

I’ll be sixty in a couple of years and with it has come some hard knocks leading to episodic wisdom.

I’ve lived through ballet auditions where I didn’t make it through the first rounds because they were ‘looking for a particular body type.’ Balanchine wanted his dancers to be ‘like racehorses, rail thin, beautiful, and not bright.’ No one cared how I danced.

Nevertheless, I modeled my way through college being a consistent size 8. Patterns were cut to this size in the 70s and 80s. I can’t take kudos for the size 8 body; it’s the family bone structure and genetics.

My first husband made comments about my looks, my weight, and my height. You can’t change some of these characteristics. They are genetic, predetermined, or out of your control. I will never forget the day I said to that husband, “I’m a size 8. Get over it. Not a size 4. Not going to happen.” And I returned to my graduate school studies. He remarried and described his wife as “young, beautiful, and stylish.” Good grief. She can’t stay that way forever. He can’t either.

I’ve had dates where I knew the men were not into my appearance. “But that body,” they would say. Yeah, I’m a little more than that. We are entitled to preferences but beyond 30, people, this life, my body comes with an expiration date. Go away and grow up.

I’ve lost jobs or not received a second interview because I look too old – employers can’t ask your age, but they figure it out. Ageism. Or maybe I did not fulfill their appearance requirement. Still illegal and still hard to prove but you know it when you are on the receiving end.

My wrinkles and the knowledge in my eyes are hard won – living, loving, making mistakes, grieving, being a friend – it is all there on my face and body. I don’t look, act, sound, think, or believe in the same ways of earlier decades. To do so would be a nullification of who I am, my genetics, my values, and every experience that I have lived through. I will not do that to myself. Or to another female. Or male.

So, to the woman who calls me BUTTERFACE, I am sorry for the time, and it will happen, when someone makes a derogatory remark about your appearance. By then, I hope you will have learned the self-acceptance to shrug it off.

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